MUNSTER │ Sylvia Heller and her husband Arthur were tourists exploring London in 1999 when the Munster couple stumbled upon Westminister Synagogue, home to 1,564 historic Czech Holocaust Torah Scrolls.
They helped obtain one a year later for Temple Beth-El in Munster, which celebrated Memorial Scrolls 50th anniversary two days early on Friday. The global observance, marking when the scrolls arrived at Westminster Synagogue, will be held Sunday.
Temple Beth-El's celebration joined with congregations around the world that are caretakers for Torah Scrolls from Czech synagogues. The scrolls were found after World War II and transferred to Westminster where they were made available to congregations around the world to care for them.
Heller, a member of Temple Beth-El, told the story about how in 1938 Hitler’s troops occupied an area in Czechoslovakia and forced its Jews to turn in valuables including gold and silver.
“They had nothing more valuable than the word of God – their Torahs,” Heller said.
The Czech Jews turned in the 1,564 scrolls to the Nazis who then stored them in a Prague synagogue-turned-warehouse.
Heller said the Nazis took the scrolls because they wanted to make a museum to an extinct people.
“They were killing all the Jews and keeping the Torahs,” she said.
In 1963, an English art dealer became aware of the cache of scrolls and made a deal with a backer in London to have them carefully shipped to Westminster. They arrived on Feb. 7, 1964, to be cared for and restored.
It was at this synagogue Heller and her husband found by chance on their walking tour, knocked on the door and were given a tour by a caretaker who led to the room of scrolls.
“When we walked in there it was just mind-blowing,” Heller said. “We had no idea what we were going to find. Art was the one who said ‘we’ve got to bring one home.’ ”
The Hellers worked with Temple Beth-El and had scroll No. 369 sent to its new Munster home in the winter of 2000.
The scroll is on permanent loan from Westminster to synagogues, temples and museums for general religious Holocaust memorial and educational use. They are only to be returned if the caretaker that holds it ceases to exist.
Temple Beth-El Rabbi Emeritus Michael Stevens remembers when the scroll arrived. Stevens said they are “very fortunate” to have one of the Holocaust scrolls